The best painting books

19 authors have picked their favorite books about painting and why they recommend each book.

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The Guardian of Mercy

By Terence Ward,

Book cover of The Guardian of Mercy: How an Extraordinary Painting by Caravaggio Changed an Ordinary Life Today

In this wondrous book on Caravaggio, the world of Naples unfolds from the inside through an electrifying reading experience. Written with grace, almost every sentence imparts an epiphany. The author challenges us to undertake soul-work, even if one is a secular reader. Reading becomes an act of empathy and passion. In the words of Wallace Stevens, potential readers will become ‘necessary angels’.

The Guardian of Mercy

By Terence Ward,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Guardian of Mercy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Profound New Look at the Italian Master and His Lasting Legacy

Now celebrated as one of the great painters of the Renaissance, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio fled Rome in 1606 to escape retribution for killing a man in a brawl. Three years later he was in Naples, where he painted The Seven Acts of Mercy. A year later he died at the age of thirty-eight under mysterious circumstances. Exploring Caravaggio's singular masterwork, in The Guardian of Mercy Terence Ward offers an incredible narrative journey into the heart of his artistry and his metamorphosis from fugitive to visionary.

Ward's guide…

Who am I?

Early in life, I felt the presence of a “guardian angel” who would take my hand and accompany my mind to imagine distant cultures. I grew up in Florence, and in our history, there were so many tales of people coming from afar, and of Florentines traveling across deserts and oceans. And as time passed, I would be drawn to beautifully written true stories which opened windows onto different epochs and dramas of life in both near and far-flung places of the world.


I wrote...

The Lady of Sing Sing: An American Countess, an Italian Immigrant, and Their Epic Battle for Justice in New York's Gilded Age

By Idanna Pucci,

Book cover of The Lady of Sing Sing: An American Countess, an Italian Immigrant, and Their Epic Battle for Justice in New York's Gilded Age

What is my book about?

In 1890’s Manhattan, 22-year-old Maria Barbella is sentenced to be the first woman to die in the newly invented electric chair. Cora Slocomb di Brazza--an American heiress and pioneer activist married to an Italian count and living in Italy--mobilizes Manhattan’s press and public opinion to save her. In a nation already rumbling about women’s rights, Cora launches the first campaign against the death penalty. Yet, the inventor Thomas Edison has aligned his forces against the Italian immigrant girl. Locked in the “war of the currents” with his rival Westinghouse, the future of Edison’s DC current in America depends on Maria’s execution.

Woven through the tale are rich themes of class, shame, cruelty, loneliness, empathy, and love. The New York chronicler, Pete Hamill, wrote:
“This extraordinary book of historical non-fiction has the shape of drama as old as the Greeks with vivid relevance to the way we live now.”

Book cover of The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and His Followers

After the literature of Paris, the painting of Paris. T. J. Clark’s The Painting of Modern Life studies the ways in which the artists he calls “painters of modern life” created canvases that attempted to focus attention on a subsequent transformation of Paris, in the nineteenth century. Clark considers the depictions by painters such as Manet, Degas, and Seurat of Paris as it evolved and of Parisians interacting with their changing city. The depictions of Parisians experiencing the boulevards, cafés, and parks of Paris that Clark analyzes are perhaps the greatest tradition ever of city painting. No one has ever attempted such a study of the many paintings of Paris as it was transformed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. When they do so, Clark’s book can provide a model.

The Painting of Modern Life

By T.J. Clark,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Painting of Modern Life as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Paris of the 1860s and 1870s was supposedly a brand-new city, equipped with boulevards, cafes, parks, and suburban pleasure grounds--the birthplace of those habits of commerce and leisure that constitute "modern life." Questioning those who view Impressionism solely in terms of artistic technique, T. J. Clark describes the painting of Manet, Degas, Seurat, and others as an attempt to give form to that modernity and seek out its typical representatives--be they bar-maids, boaters, prostitutes, sightseers, or petits bourgeois lunching on the grass. The central question of The Painting of Modern Life is this: did modern painting as it came…

Who am I?

I’ve lived in cities all my adult life and currently divide my time between Paris and Philadelphia. And while those two cities are strikingly different places, they have in common the fact that they are both great walking cities –- urban centers that can be explored on foot and easily enjoyed by pedestrians. Walking cities, I believe, provide not only an ideal context for today’s tourists but also a model for a future in which urban dwellers become less reliant on automobiles and urban centers more open to foot traffic than to vehicular pollution and congestion. The books I’ll recommend deal in various ways with the building and rebuilding of visionary cities, and of Paris in particular.


I wrote...

Book cover of How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City

What is my book about?

What makes a city great?

To answer this, I explored the decades in the seventeenth century when French kings put visionary architects in charge of one of the most spectacular projects in the history of urban planning. These architects reimagined such basic urban building blocks as the street and the bridge. They also invented new ones – the boulevard in particular. As a result, they redefined the urban experience for both Paris’s inhabitants and visitors alike. Paris became a new kind of city, a blueprint for great cities to come. I believe that great architects and great architecture are essential to the making of any great city. 

Fundamentals of Composition

By Vladimir Mogilevtsev,

Book cover of Fundamentals of Composition

The book covers basic principles, such as variety, shape, silhouette, edges, unity, rhythm, color, and texture. But his coverage of these familiar ideas is fresh and original, and he provides lots of examples. He avoids laying down rules or laws, because one generation of artists breaks the rules of the previous generation. All of the basic principles are universal enough to have remained in place despite the changing styles throughout history.

Fundamentals of Composition

By Vladimir Mogilevtsev,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Fundamentals of Composition as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

My name is James Gurney and I've been a professional illustrator for National Geographic and Scientific American for over 40 years. Although I went to art school, everything I know about drawing and painting comes from studying art instruction books, and from sketching directly from nature. I'm best known for writing and illustrating the New York Times bestselling Dinotopia book series, published in 32 countries and 18 languages. I designed 15 dinosaur stamps for USPS and a set of five dinosaur stamps for Australia Post. My originals have been shown in over 35 solo museum exhibitions. My book Color and Light has sold over 200k copies and was Amazon's #1 bestselling book on painting for over a year.


I wrote...

Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter

By James Gurney,

Book cover of Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter

What is my book about?

This book examines two of art's most essential principles. It bridges the gap between abstract theory and practical knowledge. Beginning with a survey of underappreciated masters who perfected the use of color and light, the book examines how light reveals form, the properties of color and pigments, and the wide variety of atmospheric effects. Gurney cuts through the confusing and contradictory dogma about color, testing it in the light of science and observation. 

Book cover of The Practice of Oil Painting and Drawing

This book offers the technical breakdown of painting in grisaille. I only know of a few books that cover it and this one was written by an amazing painter! This was the common practice of Bouguereau and Gerome and is thoroughly explained in this particular volume as well and the rendering of planar “facets.” The practice of grisaille is an important phase in painting. The separation of color and form is partly why so many of the “masters” had such control over form and value.

The Practice of Oil Painting and Drawing

By Solomon J. Solomon,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Practice of Oil Painting and Drawing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

In the “meme-ification” of the world, the long-form version of learning and practicing skills is getting lost. True discovery happens after a thorough and deep understanding of the subject. Truth is a multilayered, complex exploration that is hard to sum up in a single sentence. 


I wrote...

Graphic L.A.

By Robh Ruppel,

Book cover of Graphic L.A.

What is my book about?

Graphic L.A. is part practical instruction, part guided meditation on the importance of color values and objects in art. By reducing environments down to basic shapes and colors (or "symbols"), Robh builds astounding images. Robh documents the progression of building an image while referencing basic techniques. By using color with surprisingly bold brushstrokes, he produces images of incredible depth with intricate handling of light and shadow. It is a rare exploration into simplicity without resorting to minimalism.

Concerning the Spiritual in Art

By Wassily Kandinsky,

Book cover of Concerning the Spiritual in Art

This book is an absolute must-read for all painters. Kandinsky is known as the father of modern art who brought abstract painting into the realms of art history. As an important aside, there is now controversy over his title, as new information has come up about a woman painter Hilma af Klint, that preceded Kandinsky for abstract painting ideas. Even so, Kandinsky was the first to write about spirituality and art for painters. His ideas still feel fresh on how color plays an integral role to express emotion in painting. He originally wrote this book in German, and so the translation to English along with his determination to express inner motivation for painters, makes this read a bit of a challenge. A worthy task guaranteed to surprise even the savviest painter, on how Kandinsky points out our inner thoughts as contemporary painters, but more than a century ago.

Concerning the Spiritual in Art

By Wassily Kandinsky,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Concerning the Spiritual in Art as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

When I was nine years old, I saved enough allowance money to buy a big box of oil pastels. I was mesmerized by its amazing display of gorgeous colors. Never could figure out why my girlfriends played with dolls when it was more exciting to paint. It wasn’t until high school, and time to apply to colleges that I made the decision to go to art school. Another key moment for me was after graduating from art school and landing in New York City. It was then that I made a brave decision to never waitress again, and instead do whatever it takes to stay in the arts. 


I wrote...

Create Perfect Paintings: An Artist's Guide to Visual Thinking

By Nancy Reyner,

Book cover of Create Perfect Paintings: An Artist's Guide to Visual Thinking

What is my book about?

Learn Nancy’s comprehensive and systematic critique method to improve and enhance your paintings. These groundbreaking concepts will help you create your fine art paintings quicker, with more ease, and better results. Shape your artistic vision, add inspiration to your work, and find perfect solutions to resolve any painting issue. Discover how to quickly move forward when you get stuck. Enjoy watching your paintings progress from good to great. These painting concepts, rarely taught in art schools, will bring more attention to your paintings and expand your audience. Realistic or abstract – all painting mediums and styles will benefit. 

Blood Water Paint

By Joy McCullough,

Book cover of Blood Water Paint

Joy McCullough’s Blood Water Paint is historical fiction that tells the story of Artemisia Gentileschi, a Renaissance painter who survived a sexual assault and persevered to see her assailant convicted in an Italian court. If the true aspects of the story weren’t compelling enough, McCullough contrasts her fictional character with the biblical heroines Judith and Susanna, using prose and verse strategically to weave the stories with their counter-narratives. McCullough’s experience as a playwright shines through here and her poetic devices are downright Shakespearean, revealing clues to her characters’ emotional truths through the deceptively simple arrangement of words on the page. This book is astonishingly good and a must-read for anyone intrigued by novels in verse.

Blood Water Paint

By Joy McCullough,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Blood Water Paint as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Her mother died when she was twelve, and suddenly Artemisia Gentileschi had a stark choice: a life as a nun in a convent or a life grinding pigment for her father's paint.

She chose paint.

By the time she was seventeen, Artemisia did more than grind pigment. She was one of Rome's most talented painters, even if no one knew her name. But Rome in 1610 was a city where men took what they wanted from women, and in the aftermath of rape Artemisia faced another terrible choice: a life of silence or a life of truth, no matter the…

Who am I?

I am a poet and author living and writing in Northern Colorado. I love reading (and writing) novels in verse because they invite the reader into an active relationship with the author-poet. The story is co-created through mutual trust and imagination: the reader has to trust the author to provide enough language to reveal the narrative, and the author has to trust the reader to fill in details left by the white space on the page. Through this mutual effort and creative collaboration, dazzling stories emerge.


I wrote...

Alone

By Megan E. Freeman,

Book cover of Alone

What is my book about?

Perfect for fans of Hatchet and the I Survived series, this harrowing novel in verse tells the story of a young girl who wakes up one day to find herself utterly alone in her small Colorado town. When twelve-year-old Maddie hatches a scheme for a secret sleepover with her two best friends, she ends up waking up to a nightmare. She’s alone—left behind in a town that has been mysteriously evacuated and abandoned. As months pass, Maddie escapes natural disasters, looters, and wild animals. But her most formidable enemy is the crushing loneliness she faces every day. Can Maddie’s stubborn will to survive carry her through the most frightening experience of her life?

Glow

By Megan E. Bryant,

Book cover of Glow

When I decided I wanted to read more and write about the Radium Girls, this was the only novel I could find featuring them. It is an accessible, young adult novel with a dual timeline. A contemporary young woman discovers a painting at a thrift shop that reveals glow-in-the-dark elements. The story of a fictional early dial painter is told alongside the struggle of the main protagonist in today’s world.

Glow

By Megan E. Bryant,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Glow as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

When I decided to write about Catherine Donohue, I searched for everything I could find about her, which was surprisingly little. I traveled to Ottawa, Illinois to read her letters held at a local historical society, and I connected with the son of her attorney, who has kindly uploaded his father’s old newspaper clippings onto the internet. The story of America’s Radium Girls is a tragic warning about where greed and corruption can lead, but it is also a story about courage, faith, and perseverance. It is a privilege to be a part of increasing awareness of their fate. After all, HERstory is history, too.


I wrote...

Luminous: The Story of a Radium Girl

By Samantha Wilcoxson,

Book cover of Luminous: The Story of a Radium Girl

What is my book about?

A young woman's life is set on an unexpected course when she accepts a job at Radium Dial. She soon finds out that the excellent pay is no recompense for the dark secret that lurks in the paint that magically makes her glow in the dark. This is the story of brave Catherine Donohoe who took on the might of a big corporation and became an early pioneer of social justice in the era between two world wars. Emotive and inspiring - this book will touch you like no other.

It’s too late for me, but maybe it will help some of the others. ~ Catherine Wolfe Donohue 

The Science of Art

By Martin Kemp,

Book cover of The Science of Art: Optical Themes in Western Art from Brunelleschi to Seurat

Martin Kemp is the world's leading expert on the use of perspective, optical tools, and scientific knowledge in art. This encyclopaedic book follows developments from the Italian Renaissance to the nineteenth century, with a great wealth of illustrations, from Brunelleschi and Alberti to the colour theories of Goethe and Chevreul. I re-read and refer to this book repeatedly - as I am sure do many others - and am always finding new insights. Kemp's explanations are always clear and penetrating, even when the writers and artists he is writing about are not.

The Science of Art

By Martin Kemp,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Science of Art as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this pathbreaking and richly illustrated book, Martin Kemp examines the major optically oriented examples of artistic theory and practice from Brunelleschi's invention of perspective and its exploitation by Leonardo and Durer to the beginnings of photography. In a discussion of color theory, Kemp traces two main traditions of color science: the Aristotelian tradition of primary colors and Newton's prismatic theory that influenced Runge, Turner, and Seurat. His monumental book not only adds to our understanding of a large group of individual works of art but also provides valuable information for all those interested in the interaction between science and…

Who am I?

If I was asked to describe the central theme of my life's work in a phrase, it would be 'geometry in the arts'. I'm an architect originally, now a professor in London, and have always loved drawing and the art of perspective. In the 1990s I became fascinated with the idea that Johannes Vermeer used the camera obscura, an obsession that led to my book Vermeer's Camera. I'm now working on Canaletto's Camera. And I have ideas for yet another book, on perspective, to be called Points of View. I've chosen five books on these topics that I've found most thought-provoking and inspiring.


I wrote...

Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces

By Philip Steadman,

Book cover of Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces

What is my book about?

Over 100 years of speculation and controversy surround claims that the great seventeenth-century Dutch artist, Johannes Vermeer, used the camera obscura to create some of the most famous images in Western art. This intellectual detective story starts by exploring Vermeer's possible knowledge of contemporary optical science, and outlines the history of this early version of the photographic camera, which projected an image for artists to trace. By analysing the perspective of Vermeer's paintings, I have been able to reconstruct his studio and provide exciting new evidence to prove that Vermeer did indeed use the camera.

Secret Knowledge

By David Hockney,

Book cover of Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters

David Hockney believes, rightly in my opinion, that European artists since the Renaissance have used optical aids - mirrors of different types, the camera obscura, the camera lucida - much more often than conventional art history has allowed. I like and admire this book for the wonderful choice of illustrations, and the deep knowledge and understanding of painting methods that Hockney betrays, with wit and elegance, in the text. His arguments are highly subversive and involve a complete re-thinking of the role of optics in Western art, before photography. I don't go along with all of Hockney's theories. But he has overturned the subject, and has got art historians thinking again.

Secret Knowledge

By David Hockney,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Secret Knowledge as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

If I was asked to describe the central theme of my life's work in a phrase, it would be 'geometry in the arts'. I'm an architect originally, now a professor in London, and have always loved drawing and the art of perspective. In the 1990s I became fascinated with the idea that Johannes Vermeer used the camera obscura, an obsession that led to my book Vermeer's Camera. I'm now working on Canaletto's Camera. And I have ideas for yet another book, on perspective, to be called Points of View. I've chosen five books on these topics that I've found most thought-provoking and inspiring.


I wrote...

Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces

By Philip Steadman,

Book cover of Vermeer's Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces

What is my book about?

Over 100 years of speculation and controversy surround claims that the great seventeenth-century Dutch artist, Johannes Vermeer, used the camera obscura to create some of the most famous images in Western art. This intellectual detective story starts by exploring Vermeer's possible knowledge of contemporary optical science, and outlines the history of this early version of the photographic camera, which projected an image for artists to trace. By analysing the perspective of Vermeer's paintings, I have been able to reconstruct his studio and provide exciting new evidence to prove that Vermeer did indeed use the camera.

Book cover of The Fantasy Illustrator's Technique Book

This book is full of beautiful illustrations and great advice on creating your own fantastic scenes.  It goes into great detail on how to visualize your piece. While there is a full chapter specifically dedicated to drawing, there is also a section that looks at other mediums such as ink and watercolor and what techniques you can incorporate into your art using these materials. It is full of wonderful tips and advice, and is also a pleasure just to flip through.

The Fantasy Illustrator's Technique Book

By Gary A. Lippincott,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Fantasy Illustrator's Technique Book as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Who am I?

I have been drawing fantasy creatures and characters for over thirty years now, and have collected hundreds of fantasy, art, and art instruction books over the decades. Both drawing and reading are a passion of mine, so I am happy to share some of my favorite fantasy art books that I have in my own personal library.


I wrote...

Drawing Fantastic Dragons: Create Amazing Full-Color Dragon Art, Including Eastern, Western and Classic Beasts

By Sandra Staple,

Book cover of Drawing Fantastic Dragons: Create Amazing Full-Color Dragon Art, Including Eastern, Western and Classic Beasts

What is my book about?

Drawing Fantastic Dragons teaches you all the tricks and techniques you’ll need to create your own amazing dragons and bring them to life in distinct and dramatic colors. With easy-to-follow, step-by-step instructions, you’ll discover how to draw all types of dragons. Packed with example after example, this hands-on guide features dragons of all shapes and sizes, and includes a special section on how to draw unique beasts. It also features a special section on adding claws, scales, horns, beards, and other details to your dragons. 

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